‘Don’t kill the sufferer to end the suffering’

Some call it a dangerous affront to life and others “death with dignity,” but the debate over state legislation proposing physician-assisted suicide is drawing the voices of Coloradans from all backgrounds.

Doctors, attorneys, families and citizens spoke out about a bill debated at the state legislature last week that proposes a legal nod to an intentional death by drugs.

Legislators drafted House Bill 1135 under the guidance of Compassion & Choices, formerly the Hemlock Society, to allow terminally ill residents access to life-ending drugs if a doctor determines they are competent and two other doctors agree within six months of dying.

Some Coloradans are responding that the decision on when and how to draw a dying breath is not an isolated choice.

For physicians, explained Deacon Dr. Alan Rastrelli of Divine Mercy Supportive Care, the legislation puts them in an ethical dilemma.

“As opposed to protecting and restoring your health, (they’re) asking doctors to compromise their values, their ethics, their oath to do no harm so that it can be legitimized for the patient or their family,” said Deacon Rastrelli, who said he would testify against the bill. “You don’t kill the sufferer to end the suffering. That’s not what health care is about.”

The Hippocratic Oath historically taken by doctors is a binding statement to treat patients to the best of their ability and to not prescribe lethal drugs. The bill would further blur the line between illegal overdosing that could cost physicians their license and physician-prescribed overdosing.

“It’s odd to say to patients take this medicine twice a day in this small amount and then turn around with the next person and say take this medicine all at once so that you may die,” Deacon Rastralli explained.

In response to the proposed legislation, the Archdiocese of Denver sent an urgent email to pastors and parishes asking that a pulpit announcement be read at Masses Jan. 31-Feb. 1 to raise awareness and encourage parishioners to contact their state representatives.

“A law allowing physician-assisted suicide would further entrench a culture of death in our laws here in Colorado, demean the lives of vulnerable patients—exposing them to exploitation—and corrupt the medical profession, whose ethical code calls on physicians to serve life and never to kill,” the email read.

Legalized suicide has been debated beyond the medical community. After Oregon passed assisted suicide laws called “death with dignity” by proponents in 1994, three others states—Washington, Montana and Vermont—passed laws permitting it. Last year, a New Mexico judge ruled to protect physicians who help patients die.

The legal system may also be compromised by the proposed bill, according to attorneys.

Attorneys Michael Norton, Natalie Decker and Catherine Foster, associated with the nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom, released a policy and legal analysis on reasons to reject physician-assisted suicide.

In “Suicide by Doctor: What Colorado Would Risk on the Slippery Slope of Physician-Assisted Suicide,” the attorneys stated, “in recent years, physician-assisted suicide has been repackaged and promoted to the American public as ‘Death with Dignity.’ However, physician-assisted suicide is anything but dignified and amounts to eugenics for the infirm, but with the government’s stamp of approval.”

Decker told the Denver Catholic that for centuries the legal system has been designed to protect and preserve life.

“I think it’s important to keep in mind with this bill that this is basically an effort to legislatively override Western civilization to preserve and protect human life,” she said. “The role of the state is to protect its most vulnerable citizens, not to provide poison pills. It makes the state agents of death and not the protector of life. It’s such a significant and dramatic departure from our entire legal history.”

A departure from this fundamental purpose of laws could create ethical dilemmas for attorneys as well, she said, who may advise terminal ill patients and their families.

The bill also raises ethical dilemmas and moral questions for families who may be caring for an ill relative.

According to a Pew Research Center survey in Oct. 2014, nearly 50 percent say they disapprove of physician-assisted suicide, but 62 percent say that suicide is morally acceptable for people who are in great pain with no hope of improvement.

Opponents to physician-assisted suicide also say the bill would impact individual citizens’ ideas on the value of life and true meaning of death with dignity.

After the national story on Brittany Maynard’s physician-assisted suicide Nov. 1, Deacon Rastrelli responded that her family’s support of her hastened death is not the true picture of compassion.

“To me, providing a natural death with dignity means that you provide them intensive care all the way through,” he said. “I think it’s undignified to say, ‘The remaining days so your life are not valuable enough for me.’ Compassion is to engage in their difficulties with them, not to inflict more suffering or to prolong it, but to let them know you are hurting and I will give you comfort by my presence and care.”



What’s the risk?Medical doctor holing senior patient's hands
-Millions of uninsured would be branded an economic liability if diagnosed with an illness.
-Prejudices on the value of life could lead society to encourage death for the disabled or ill.
-When pain and depression is addressed, talk of suicide abates.
-The U.S. Supreme Court urged in 1997 to uphold laws against assisted suicide because physicians could not control it.




COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.